Chicago colossus Sidley Austin attracts “ambitious associates without the attitude.”
MEGA-firm Sidley Austin isn't one for doing things on a small scale. Back in its early years, the Chicago-founded firm attracted some of the most prominent names of the day as clients, including Mary Todd Lincoln – widow of Abraham Lincoln – and the Western Union Telegraph Company. Almost a century and a half later, Sidley still caters to big-name clients like Citi, J.P. Morgan, GlaxoSmithKline and Walgreens. The firm racks up an impressive 23 top-tier rankings in Chambers USA, in areas including appellate, environment, capital markets, and transactional and regulatory insurance.
Sidley's 1,900 attorneys are broadly split between the firm's transactional, litigation and regulatory practices and serve clients in industries like finance, insurance, healthcare, life sciences, energy, technology and manufacturing. Over 500 lawyers reside in the Chicago HQ, although the New York base is fast catching up. A further seven offices, stretching from San Francisco to Boston, complete the US arm of the firm's global network. Despite its gargantuan nature, there's no anxiety that Sidley over-stretches itself; the firm's 'no-debt' policy and fiscal conservatism create “a sense of stability; we'll be around forever,” one junior postulated.
Litigators are “loosely attached" to a subgroup – like civil, criminal and constitutional litigation; IP; regulatory and economic; general commercial litigation; and securities – but “most people are generalists.” Transactional associates slot into departments like corporate & finance, global finance, capital markets, and insurance & financial services.
Newbies are handed their first matter and are then encouraged to build relationships to get work, although there are assignment coordinators. “I love it; it rewards you for building relationships with people and makes our group more approachable and informal.” Most juniors agreed: “You don't really have to hunt for work. If I say I'm slowing down, something lands on my desk pretty fast.” The coordinators keep an eye on everyone's availability to ensure work is distributed evenly. “I think lawyers have a tendency to take on too much so it's a great check and forces us to moderate our work.”
“I wish I'd had less responsibility in my first year.”
Those residing in Washington, DC are almost guaranteed to end up in litigation – and juniors can pick their way through areas like antitrust, white-collar investigations, securities and complex commercial litigation. “Projects tend to fall into two categories; large and doc review-heavy, or small and substantive.” Juniors who managed to wrangle the latter had conducted witness interviews, prepared depositions and cross-examinations, and drafted reports, briefs and motions to dismiss. “I wish I'd had less responsibility in my first year so I could have gotten to grips with the basics,” one source admitted.
For the first couple of years, transactional associates often handle low-level tasks like “diligence and closing checklists,” but still believed they had a considerable amount of client contact: “The nature of the deals means we're always asking them questions or passing on information.” As rookies “learn fast and prove our competency, we are rewarded with increased responsibility.” Smaller transactional groups like insurance and financial services were praised for nudging juniors out of their comfort zones on matters like M&A and securities offerings. “I'm on the phone with clients most days and drafting ancillary and primary documents.”
Strategy & Future
“Our key initiative for 2015 is to expand our presence in markets such as New York, in Texas where we're expanding our energy practice, and in Washington, DC where we have a top-quality regulatory practice. We're also looking to develop our presence in the technology sector by way of building up our West Coast offices,” management committee member Anne Rea tells us. Sidley's litigation practices also witnessed a boost this year; the consumer class actions group embraced six attorneys from Loeb and Loeb, while four real-estate Bingham McCutchen partners made the jump into the complex commercial litigation practice.
Associates believed any movement away from the firm stemmed from mid-levels rather than more junior associates. “We're not an exit option firm but as associates progress they begin to consider partnership opportunities.” One admitted: “It's hard to tell how many people leave for good as folks take time out for clerkships; at leaving drinks I always wonder how long the goodbye is for.”
Interviewees deemed female diversity initiatives at Sidley to be “very active.” The women's committee hosts formal events to discuss issues like work/life balance or partnership possibilities. Associate-partner cocktails provide “a more relaxed environment to chat about any issues.” The group is bolstered by the Committee on Retention and Promotion of Women and Sidley also participates in “this cool OnRamp program to support women back into work after a career break." Read our Bonus Features for more info.
“They're committed to fixing the imbalance.”
Associates admitted the firm “could do better” in its racial diversity. “We're not yet seeing the reward from the effort but they're committed to fixing the imbalance and constantly trying to do so.” The Sidley Prelaw Scholars Initiative assists minority students with law school applications; the firm also offers a Diversity and Inclusion Scholarship for 2L students.
Many attorneys take on the “immensely gratifying” task of helping wounded veterans claim government compensation. Others had filed death row appeals for inmates in Alabama and assisted asylum seekers, but juniors can also take on smaller matters like social security benefits cases. Since 2012, Sidley has run an Africa-Asia agricultural enterprise pro bono program: “We provide contract advice to NGOs and African businesses who support Third World development.”
"Our coordinator is tireless at blasting out emails and you can approach the firm with your own matter; pro bono's definitely encouraged if we have the time – if there's a cap I've not hit it.” Once juniors have completed 1,800 billable hours, any pro bono counts toward reaching the 2,000 hour bonus threshold.
“Our coordinator is tireless at blasting out emails.”
Pro bono hours
Hours & Compensation
Sidley doesn't issue a formal statement on billable targets, but associates generally agreed that for a salary increase they should hit 1,800 billable hours a year, with 2,000 hours (which can include pro bono once 1,800 billable is breached) making you bonus eligible. “Those who passed the 2,000 mark received less than the market rate and the firm didn't really explain why. A lot of people were unsatisfied,” one junior informed us. But many interviewees were quick to jump to the firm's defense arguing: “I felt fairly compensated and appreciated; I think it's ridiculous to make such a big deal about it.” Another added: “The firm has a closed, merit-based system so it's hard to compare with your peers and understand the differences; maybe more transparency would improve perceptions.”
“No one's checking if you're still at your desk.”
Across the states, Sidley's offices are “pretty dead by 8pm; people work from home after dinner. We're only really here late if there's a fire drill.” Juniors appreciated being able to manage their own schedule: “If I roll in late the day after an early morning finish no one bats an eyelid. We're trusted to complete our work. No one's checking if you're at your desk but that freedom goes hand in hand with being reachable at unsociable hours.”
Training & Development
Sources believed Sidley had recently “made a real effort to get on top of our development. Our biannual reviews look at whether we're achieving our aspirations and working on the matters we want.” Senior associates are “wonderful at talking us through any new concepts when they arise.” Some juniors were pleasantly surprised by the partners' willingness to teach them as “I didn't think that was part of law firm life.” Others warned: “Partners want to invest in us but they're extremely busy; sometimes you just have to interpret their amendments.”
“Wonderful at talking us through any new concepts when they arise.”
Newbies all attend a first-year orientation in Chicago. After that, training is very office-specific. Deal-doers spend “three intensive days” at Corporate College in their second year and also benefit from one-off sessions on areas like bankruptcies or securities funds. Skills training for depositions and internal investigations keep litigators sharp and various subgroups like white-collar crime or securities host brown-bag lunches. “It's helpful having someone walk you through areas; plus you meet loads of different associates and junior partners.”
Across the states juniors described a pretty consistent Sidley environment. “One of the firm's real strengths is that we work ridiculously hard but when it's crazy and stressful there's a general feeling that the partners are in it with you. It's demanding but you never feel alone, incapable or belittled.” This attitude is rooted in Sidley's Chicago origins. “Midwestern values still pervade. Leadership genuinely believes in them rather than just paying lipservice and they try to instill them throughout the firm,” one source reckoned.
“We want to be the best we can.”
Another interviewee elaborated: “A friend got into a jam and everyone they contacted for help stepped up and said 'what do you need?' We don't undercut each other; if I work hard on a project I will be given credit. We want to be the best we can but not at the expense of others.” This isn't a place where voices are raised, but “don't think we're not passionate about our work; we just respect each other.” As for after-work socializing: “We enjoy grabbing a drink together but at the end of the day everyone just wants go home to their families.”
With the culture seemingly so consistent, it appears there might be a Sidley type: “Someone with a one-track mind would not do well here. Yes, you should be passionate about your work but also have other interests.” Another added: “This is not the type of place for aggressive personalities. I look for people who want to help their peers rather than just climbing to the top.” Ambition, though, is a given. Sidley recruits students with “incredibly high GPAs; if you didn't come from a top school then you were top of your class elsewhere. Intelligence and curiosity are a prerequisite.” Demonstrating a commitment to your preferred geographic location is crucial. “If you're not thinking about why you want to be based in Houston or DC, you should be.”
“Someone with a one-track mind would not do well here.”
The largest concentration of associates resides in the Chicago headquarters, closely followed by New York and then Washington, DC and LA. Elsewhere, juniors are thinly spread across the firm's remaining US offices.
The Chicago office is full-service while investment funds, capital markets, complex commercial litigation, and securities litigation are staples of New York. Unsurprisingly, DC has flourishing appellate and regulatory practices. Departments in Houston cater heavily to the energy industry while Dallas focuses on IP, private equity, global finance and litigation. Transactional associates were more likely to interact with their colleagues in other offices than litigators. “For contentious matters it really depends; the larger the case the more likely there is to be cross-office work but if it's a specialism of a particular office, it tends to stay there.”
“The larger the case, the more likely there is to be cross-office work.”
Interview with management committee member Anne Rea
Chambers Associate: What have been the firm's highlights from the past year?
Anne Rea: It's been another very exciting year for us. Our strategy is focused on having a significant presence in the major commercial and financial centers of the world and to build and grow in those centers, creating opportunities for law students joining us in the future.
Sidley had a very strong financial year in 2014 and we are investing a significant portion of those revenues into our growth initiatives. Our goal is always to create opportunities for new lawyers and leave the firm in a stronger position for the future. Our key initiative for 2015 is to expand our presence in markets such as New York; in Texas where we're expanding our energy practice; and in Washington, DC where we have a top quality regulatory practice. We're also looking to develop our presence in the technology sector by way of building up our West Coast offices. Beyond that we're continuing to grow our life sciences and IP practices and also develop our presence in Asia.
CA: Last year we heard Sidley was looking to focus on its expertise in key industries such as energy, particularly in areas like Houston. Is that growth progressing as you would expect?
AR: I think we're ahead of schedule in the Houston office. Houston is a key energy center and our offering there continues to grow; we're adding significant numbers of lawyers and practices. In addition we recently added a top-tier energy, transactional and regulatory practice in Washington, DC. This gives us tremendous capability to advise clients; it's very exciting, it's been a huge growth initiative for us.
CA: In which other areas has the firm witnessed growth?
AR: In Boston we're actively looking at opportunities which will tie in with Sidley's key practice areas. We've made some significant hires, including former First Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Jack Pirozzolo, who will provide a link between both our trial and white collar practices. He also has experience in life sciences, a core practice at Sidley.
We added a significant litigation consumer class action group in LA, and very high profile trial lawyer, Bruce Braun, in Chicago. We've hired some very talented first chair trial lawyers and other lead litigators to continue our litigation growth.
CA: Sidley's been part of the OnRamp initiative since it first began. Would you be able to tell me a little about how that's going?
AR: It's working great, we're so excited by it. We're one of a handful of firms who signed on at the beginning to help female lawyers return to work after having left the practice of law for family or other reasons. They join a practice group which agrees to mentor them, and OnRamp provides resources and training to accelerate and develop their skills.
These lawyers bring a wonderful set of experiences, are eager to learn and do great work. We view it as a very successful partnership and one that is really important and innovative in fostering the pipeline of diverse lawyers who want to return to the profession after a hiatus. I think it's tremendous and we're planning to continue with it; the number of positions we offer has recently gone up.
CA: Any advice or words of wisdom for our student readers as they try to enter the legal profession?
AR: Be thoughtful about the law firm you select and choose a firm you believe that you could be happy at in the long term. Work hard once you get there and always learn from what you do, including the mistakes you make; they will make you a better and stronger lawyer and person. I've been at Sidley for 31 years and I remember what it was like at law school to look at all these different firms. I am so lucky I chose Sidley; it gave me many wonderful opportunities, exciting work and colleagues. How many people are lucky enough to have that experience for 31 years?
More tips on getting hired
Confidence is crucial during interviews: “Being well spoken, self possessed and articulate pays dividends. I really look at how someone presents themselves,” one recruiting associate insisted. “It can be tough to figure out someone's personality when candidates are guarded or don't want to say the wrong thing. Being able to speak eloquently and make eye contact creates a comfortable atmosphere between us, so we're much more likely to have a proper conversation where I can see your true personality.”
Being self-motivated and proactive will help you advance, especially in Sidley's free market system. Sources also reported trying to gage whether candidates are ready for the challenge of BigLaw. “Starting here is a learning curve; it can seem intimidating but if you're up for it and okay with stepping into an unfamiliar area you'll do really well.” On a related note, “when you start at Sidley all you need to do is demonstrate you're ready to work.” Once you've got the job offer, “as long as you arrive with an open mind there's really nothing else you can do to be prepared for this place. So just relax and try to enjoy it.”
The OnRamp Fellowship
Female lawyers attempting to re-establish successful legal careers after a hiatus might as well be attempting to free climb the sheer, smooth Dawn Wall of El Capitan in California's Yosemite National Park. While the percentage of female partners is slowly increasing, the continuing gender imbalance at leadership levels indicates just how difficult it remains for women to ascend the ranks. Tenure-based hiring and advancement adds another hurdle for returning female lawyers, as employers struggle to decide where to place them in pay and advancement structures.
Some said free climbing the Dawn Wall was impossible; this year they were proved wrong. And in 2014 OnRamp began helping returning female lawyers get back on the career ladder and aiming for partnership track by connecting returning female lawyers with law firms like Sidley for a one-year, paid training contract.
Applicants are matched to firms based predominantly on their 'cultural fit' and if successful in gaining a fellowship receive a partner advisor, career counselor, access to CLEs and business development training. Throughout the training contract, fellows will be able to build and demonstrate their skills, forge industry connections and come away with a reference. Business need allowing and all going well, some may even nab a job. “We love our fellow,” one Sidley source exclaimed –“I hope she'll stay!” Sidley – one of fifteen participating firms – currently has four fellows, two in LA, and two more in New York and Chicago.
Sidley's signed up for a second round of fellowships and is currently offering nine places; three in Chicago, two in Washington and one in each of Dallas, Houston, New York and San Francisco. “It's been very successful, “ one junior reckoned, “we’re continuing with it as we're seeing these amazing, well seasoned fellows with loads to offer.”
Sidley Austin LLP
One South Dearborn,
787 Seventh Avenue,
- Head Office: Chicago, IL; New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 9
- Number of international offices: 9
- Worldwide revenue: $1,753,500,000
- Partners (US): 610
- Other lawyers (US): 916 (includes counsel and associates)
- Summer Salary 2015
- 1Ls: $3,100/week
- 2Ls: $3,100/week
- Post 3Ls: $3,100/week
- Split summers offered? Case by case
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? No
- Summers 2015: 106
- Offers/acceptances 2014: 104 offers, 86 acceptances to date
Main areas of work
Antitrust; bankruptcy and restructuring; capital markets; communications; complex commercial litigation; employment and benefits; energy; environment; ERISA; FDA; financial institutions regulatory; global finance; corporate governance; healthcare; insurance; international trade; investment funds; IP; life sciences; M&A and private equity; privacy and data security; products liability; real estate; securities and derivatives enforcement and regulatory; securities litigation; securitization, Supreme Court and appellate, technology; transportation; trusts and estates; venture capital; white collar.
Number of 1st year associates: 84
Number of 2nd year associates: 97
Associate Salaries: 1st Year: $160,000
2nd Year: $170,000
Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2015:
Berkeley, BYU, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, DePaul, Duke, Fordham, Georgetown, George Washington, Harvard, Howard, Houston, Illinois, Iowa, Chicago – Kent, Loyola, Loyola – LA, Michigan, Minnesota, New York University, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Pennsylvania, Santa Clara, Southern Methodist, Stanford, Texas, UCLA, UC – Hastings, USC, Virginia, Washington University, Wisconsin, Yale
Summer associate profile:
Sidley seeks candidates who have demonstrated academic success and possess strong leadership and interpersonal qualities. The firm looks for a diverse group of individuals who are motivated by highly sophisticated legal work practiced in a collegial and supportive environment.
Summer program components:
Sidley’s summer associate program is an invaluable window into its practice and firm culture. Participants select projects that interest them and perform legal work under lawyer supervision. An essential component of Sidley’s summer program is the opportunity to learn and develop professional skills. Hands-on training includes detailed reviews of each summer associate’s work product, as well as more formal training programs such as writing seminars, a mock trial, and a mock negotiation exercise. Each summer associate is assigned senior associates and partners to provide guidance, and each participant receives a formal review at the midpoint of the summer program.